Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Caliber shot down, looks like Mazda3 may be my new ride.

Now we all know, this should be my new ride, a Ford Focus ST, built on the C1 platform. But Ford hasn't seen fit to release this in the US. So I had been doing a lot of research, in order to buy a new car. I want something useful, that will get decent milage and look fairly good.
And I thought I had been lured by the Siren's song of the Dodge Caliber SXT. On paper it seems to be quite a car, roomy and versatile, with good economy and muscular looks. But it only took one test drive to just suck the wind out of it's sails. I had an opportunity, thanks to my brother the Mazda guy, to visit a dealership that sells both Mazda and Dodge. That way I could test drive both the Caliber and the Mazda3 back to back and compare them side by side litterally.
And even if I was willing to overlook the cheaper interior materials on the Caliber, which I was, what killed it was the drive. The Caliber was an SXT with the 2.0l I4 and a CVT auto trans. Power was close on both cars 158 hp for Caliber and 160 hp for Mazda. Now I had never driven a car with a CVT trans, so I was expecting it to be very near a conventional automatic transmission. Boy was I wrong. Pulling into traffic on the 2 lane road was fine, but getting onto the parkway was a real education. As I accelerated on the ramp, I was assaulted with a buzzy engine and a total lack of power. I mean we did get to 50 mph, but the revs never dropped below 4 grand and the lack of shift feel had me nervous. Once up to speed with traffic the engine stayed up at 4 grand and stabbing the go pedal didn't seem to make much of a difference. Now I had intended to buy a manual transmission model anyway, but after driving the Mazda3, even that couldn't sway me. Besides after talking to several local dealers, I don't believe it will be possible to test drive a manual trans Caliber for some time.

Now the Mazda3 was a real breath of fresh air. The 160 hp 2.3 I4 and 4 spd Auto trans worked in unison to bring me up to highway speeds with confidence and obviously power to spare. The car pulled with a good amount of low end grunt and I don't think the tach went over 3500 rpm. The engine hummed up to speed without the raspy clatter of the Dodge. And the slush box shifted firmly and without and hesitation. As for utility, the 3 can handle it, the rear leg room is similar to the slightly larger Caliber and the slightly smaller hatch is not really a penalty, because with the rear seats folded, they are very close. Add to that the higher quality materials everywhere in the Mazda and it's a clear decision. Well, as fickle as I am, nothing is clear, but the Mazda3 just feels better anyway you compare. It's about $1500 more than the Caliber when equiped similarilly, with Leather, Moonroof and 6 disc stereo, but the value is there because of the quality.

Now if Ford would bring the C1 Focus here, I wouldn't have had to look at either of these.


Igor said...

Joe... 06 Mazda3 has 5speed Auto.. but the manny is even better (D'Oh)..

I am glad to see Mazda3 won a side-by-side comparison with the caliber.

BTW log on to mazda3forums.com we have tons of info..
Also if you are going for the leather- it seems you are getting the GT (GrandTouring).. with that you get goodies Caliber does not even offer: HID headlamps, Auto headlights, Auto Wipers, LED tailights, TPMS, Auto Climate Control... it is a better value..

Now the last thing you might want to cosider is whether you want to wait for the redesigned 2007 Mazda3 coming around Christmas. .the Mazda got a nose job, improved chasis stiffness (Thanks Mazdaspeed) and HB has reworked underbody aerodynamics (CX dropped by 0.04) and other goodies. .talk to your brother...and look at the Forums.. depending on your personality it migth be worth the wait.

There is nothing able to touch Mazda3 rigth now (except the GTI and Si), unless you cannot afford one, Mazda3 is a compact class nobrainer.


Cars! Cars! Cars! said...

My brother-in-law is waiting on delivery of his top-of-the-line Mazda3. I think the 3 is friggin' cool.

I also like the 5 since I have kids and whatnot. Lots of whatnot. In fact, I'd look at the 5 if I was in the market for something newer. It's great for city parking.

Go for the 3!

Shawn said...

I didn't test drive the Caliber, but I did spend a lot of time in it when it first arrived in a nearby dealer's lot. The interior is horrible.

I don't useless care about interiors as long as I can reach everything I need, but the quality of everything you can see and touch completely turned me off.

Another thing that really bugged me...and this is just my personal taste...That square hump in the back.

Joel A said...

I rented a Mazda3 5-door and it was the bomb! Great choice.

Big Ford Fan said...

Igor, thanks for the correction on the auto trans. I'm slipping and always glad to be corrected. It's not as if I'm really an expert, so I will make mistakes. Yeah as much as I tried to give the Caliber some slack, the drive killed it, where even the cheaper interior materials couldn't. I've driven Mazdas in the past, my brother has owned several, so I know how good their manual transmissions are. My brother always taunts me with "snick-snick" the quick shifting of his RX-7s, Miata and now MazdaSpeed6.

You are also correct that I will be looking at the GTs version with all the goodies. I could wait for 2007, but I'm not sure, I've been wanting a new car for a long time, and would prefer to have it by the summer so I can enjoy it on vacation. As for affording, I can afford the car easily, it's just that I'm notoriously cheap. And as I will reveal in a post soon, I have some assistance in the cost of the Mazda3 that most people won't.

Bob, good to hear from you, I like the Mazda5 a lot too, I just don't have a need for the 2 extra seats in the back. It's a really well laid out mini-mini-van.

Shawn, I could have overlooked the cheaper interior materials, and the square hump actually didn't bother me. But that test drive was the nail in the coffin. What a shame too, because these Calibers are selling well. The CVT was just too strange for me.

Racedriven said...

Wow, I love the style of the Dodge Caliber, but I am surprised with the review.

The loud engine doesn't surprise me, we just got a 2003 Jeep Liberty with the 3.7L V-6 and you can hear it when he steps on the gas, but I have gotten use to it and the interier of the Liberty is not back either.

I was looking at the Caliber R/T with the 2.4L 4 cyl and AWD, but I have never driven it, I can't wait for another autoshow up here to test that out and also the four-door and two-door Jeep Wrangler too.

If you get the Mazda, good luck with it, never driven a Mazda. Is there anyother cars you are looking at?

See Yeah!

the garage guy said...

joe, great review!
i've worked in the industry for close to 20 years & i've worked with chrysler, volvo & the big 3 japanese builders. i'm a true believer that once you make the switch from traditional big 3 domestic to a japanese/domestic you will never look back. that is as a consumer or a dealer employee.

we picked up a 2002 protege5 (forerunner to the 3) and we just love it!

pick the 3!!

Big Ford Fan said...

Hey Brian, I did check out several other cars, including the Chevy Cobalt which is actually a very good car. I researched cars from Kia, Hyundai, Pontiac/Toyota (Vibe) Ford Focus as well as Scion.

It had come down to the Mazda and the Caliber. Now a high rev motor wasn't the entire problem, it was more the lack of power. Or to be more honest, the perception of no power caused by the CVT. The car did get up to speed eventually, but the feeling was too gradual. When getting on a busy parkway, the last thing I want is "Eventual acceleration."

Gary, you may be right. The only thing that soothes my Blue Oval heart is the fact that FoMoCo owns a controling interest in Mazda. My brother had a Protoge 5 and several other Mazdas, that I've had chances to drive over the years. Mazda is one of the few foreign manufacturers that I can honestly accept.

Now to go see about a deal.

Anonymous said...

The Zoom zoom has got you, as You know I loved the Caliber styling. The 3 is just the best small car out there. Good luck with your Mazda 3.


Anonymous said...

Check your myforddreams@aol.com email, I have sent you an X-Plan invite. X-plan (called S-Plan for Mazda) may save you some $$$.

Big Ford Fan said...

Bob Zoom, you sound like that Gloria Estafan song; "the Rhythm is going to get you" But I guess you have a point, if the only way I can get all I want is the Mazda, then the Zoom did get me. I'd rather the Zoom of Mazda, than the clatter of the Caliber.

MF, yes I did get that e-mail. And I really appreciate that. I'm going to talk to the dealer and see about the S plan pin. I'll email you directly as the purchase gets closer.